America's poet laureate of shiftlessness sounds downright determined when he talks about bringing his come-as-you-are kingdom to the benighted shores of Biloxi, a childhood haunt now scarred by recession, oil and wind. Jimmy Buffett loves the Gulf Coast because he is, despite the sold-out tours, the house in Sag Harbor and the vast fortune, still a Mississippi boy.
When he straps on his guitar for the opening ceremony of his new Margaritaville Casino And Restaurant on Tuesday, Buffett will be serving as the pitchman for more than his own brand. He'll be sending out a message on behalf of the state that begged him to undertake this project, a state where people have suffered on the same laughable scale that he has succeeded.
The contrast is profound.
Buffett is an award-winning, uber-popular singer-songwriter who has sold an almost unprecedented number of albums. The Gulf Coast has faced chronic under-employment and has been declared a federal disaster area an almost unprecedented number of times. Buffett owns 26 Margaritavilles, a grab bag of cafes, hotels and casinos, and the businesses that make tequila, footwear and food for the brand. The Gulf Coast is still feeling the effects of the BP oil spill. Buffett is the part owner of two Minor League Baseball teams and a brewery, Landshark. Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation.
The situation is dire and though Buffett takes it seriously, he's also a man known for taking everything -- especially margaritas -- with a grain of salt.
"I plan to mix business and pleasure," he told The Huffington Post via phone. "That's what I do."
Buffett spoke to HuffPost Travel about coming home, his hopes for Biloxi and why running a hotel is like being in a band.
HuffPost Travel: Does this new property have any special meaning for you because it is where you spent a lot of your childhood?
Jimmy Buffett: On a lot of levels, having grown up on the Gulf Coast and found myself on the Gulf Coast -- earning my first money for playing music in Biloxi and taking my misspent youth in those bars -- this feels like a going home party. When I was a kid my parents would take us to Biloxi because it was a wide open city compared to the rest of Mississippi. There was gambling and everything else.
After Hurricane Katrina, I was approached about helping get the place back on its feet. Governor Haley Barbour called my partner and asked if we would consider opening a Margaritaville in Biloxi. We'd been approached before the storm, but this time they were making the big pitch. I said, 'If I can lend some credence to this being a destination, I should.' Then the recession hit.
HPT: The recession hit hard. How do you hope this new resort will affect the community?
JB: The first thing that happened was that we put on a jobs fair for 1,000 positions and 5,000 people showed up. We walked away from that knowing we'd be doing some positive good ... Later on I visited the trainings for the jobs and the new employees all thanked me for the work. It made me proud.
The truth is I'm no expert on running these things. My team does a lot of that work and I contribute mostly on the theming and the feel, but I know how to put together a good group of people. It is like putting together a band.
HPT: Obviously the Gulf Coast has been through a lot since you left. What seems different to you?
JB: The devastation was the thing. Between Katrina, the oil spill and the recession, the Gulf Coast has taken a big whack. Water destroyed New Orleans and wind destroyed the Gulf Coast. The floods in New Orleans made the world news after Katrina, but no one really heard that much about the destruction of the Gulf Coast by the winds. Both places hit rock bottom.
These are places from my childhood that will never be the same. I've been through some spots that have begun to come back over the last five years so I think there is hope here, but this is a generational thing. From an airplane you can what is being done to clean up and to make sure this doesn't happen again. I like to see that.
HPT: Did you set out with a particular feel in mind for the Biloxi franchise?
JB: I'm happy with the way we're taking in the history of the coast and my personal history. The place sits on the water and is hardly a typical resort. We don't want to be just another chain. I want the place to reflect history. I didn't want to name the buffet "Buffett's Buffet" because every place in Biloxi has a buffet. That's part of the culture and I wanted to keep in in mind. Our place is called "The Feeding Frenzy." We're trying to take the fun of being on the road and our concerts and reflect that here.
HPT: The recession swings both ways. Do you have any idea what your clientele will be and are you doing anything to keep prices down?
JB: You open your doors and you find out. I think of it as being similar to a concert. You got to get people to go once. If you're any good, they'll come back. I always try to give the best bang for the buck when I play and I feel the same way about running a place.
HPT: You have other Margaritavilles on the Gulf Coast. Was it your plan to help build up the area?
JB: We've got a place in Pensacola and Bossier City. It was never my plan to come back, but I find myself on Highway 90, where I spent my childhood.
HPT: You're an active supporter of the president and now you're working in a part of the country where he is less than popular. Has that been a problem for you?
JB: Not really. I never put politics on the stage. I don't get that. We're court jesters not theologians or scholars. In this climate, I want to stay above the political fray. I can be active on my own, but I don't bring politics on stage.
HPT: This is for a travel site so I'd be remiss if I didn't ask you your favorite places to play on your worldwide tours.
JB: I'm partial to the tailgate venues. There's Great Woods [Comcast Center] in Boston and Alpine Valley in Wisconsin. There are a couple of places that have always been fun for me. I should also say that I always like to do Paris. We play in the small venues. We're not big over there.
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